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National Service and Inclusion Project

Inclusion: The active engagement of people with disabilities as service members in all levels of national and community service

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Photo of Margaret Stran Participants: Margaret Stran

Program: AmeriCorps*NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), South Carolina, 1996-1997
Service: Provided educational and social activities for children living in Section 8 housing; Renovated housing for low income families; Built ramps on AmeriCorp*NCCC campus; designed and conducted disability awareness training at AmeriCorp*NCCC campus.

Interview with Margaret Stran, February, 2001



1. INTRODUCTION:              real audio clip icon

MARGARET STRAN: I'm Margaret Stran and I did my National Civilian Community Corps service [from 19]96 to[19]97 in Charleston South Carolina.

EMILY MILLER: What made you want to join NCCC and AmeriCorps?

MARGARET STRAN: The idea was to give back to community. When I was in college I was an orientation leader and it was a lot of fun working with a group of people, not necessarily make just change. but the whole group work and working together appealed to me when I was an orientation leader. Then when I found out about NCCC and it was the same kind of idea of working with a team, but to do community service and make a difference. It appealed to my idealism so I decided to go for it.

EMILY MILLER: Tell me a little more about yourself and where you were at with work or school at the time.

MARGARET STRAN: I was out in Santa Fe, New Mexico doing my student teaching. I was at the Santa Fe Indian School which is a private boarding school and my sister was working in the Washington DC Corporation for National Service office working in the application arena. She reviewed applications and did interviews, and she called out there to me and said, “Can we send a bunch of applications? And so then she was telling me about it, and I said "This sounds really fun." Since I was finishing--my student teaching was the last part of my undergrad degree-- and so I was finishing up in May. And so I thought "Well, you know, I don't have a job lined up or anything yet I should just go for it."

2. SERVICE:              real audio clip icon

EMILY MILLER: And as an AmeriCorps member, what did you accomplish? for the communities you served?

MARGARET STRAN: We set up an after-school, we called it the "homework club." It was an after school tutoring service in a section 8 housing unit so I know that we positively impacted a lot of students there. Not only from an educational standpoint as far as helping them improve their reading and their math, also from a social standpoint: giving them some social skills and a good place to go after school. So we provided a lot of other things in addition to the educational aspect. That was very positive. We renovated some apartments and made living spaces habitable for a number of people. And then we did more education in the summer that definitely helped. I taught some kids how to read and to add which was very cool and got them out of their neighborhood and took them on field trips. We did a lot of really positive things.

EMILY MILLER: What do you see as personal accomplishments? The ways in which your life and you changed, if it did, in a positive way?

MARGARET STRAN: I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about idealism and working idealism within a system and the best way to go about achieving what I want to achieve within a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies exist everywhere and so it was a good learning experience as far as now I have a much better understanding of what I need to do and how I need to go about achieving my goals. Really understanding the chain of command and where I fit within that.

I learned a lot about my own limits, my own abilities as far as what I will accept from others, ways in which I can grow, the potential that I have. As well as recognizing that really the only limits placed on me are those limits that I am willing to accept, so I don’t need to put any limits on myself as far as dreams or anything. From an education standpoint, really seeing how a little bit of time can do so much for students. It was amazing to me to be able to teach people how to read. To really see in a few weeks time them grow to be able to go from not even knowing what the letters stood for, what sounds they make, to having them be able to read little words. Obviously not reading novels but starting them in the right direction. Finally, simply learning a lot of new things. The apartment renovations were great. I learned so many new things about spackling and painting and scraping and laying tile and electrical work. I learned a lot of really cool things that I can apply and use in my life now.

EMILY MILLER: Can you tell me and describe what you did for your individual project?

MARGARET STRAN: My individual project came about because I use a wheelchair and the campus where I was located was not wheel chair was and it wasn't. It had the bare minimum and it wasn't that good. It had a few ramps here and there but no curb cuts. It didn't have enough to make my life easy. My individual project came out of a desire to improve accessibility on campus and along with that improve the awareness of the current and future AmeriCorps members. One of the big problems, not just there but with society in general is people don’t have a clear understanding of what people with disabilities can do. As a result, there are a lot of stereotypes and unrealistic expectations. My project was an attempt to improve the physical and the attitudinal barriers that I'd encountered in Charleston.

3. DISABILITY AWARENESS:              real audio clip icon

MARGARET STRAN: As far as increasing awareness of disabilities there are two ways to go about it. One is to have people with disabilities come in to talk about their experiences. That's usually a very powerful educational tool--especially if you get a variety of disabilities: visual impairments, hearing impairments, someone who uses a wheelchair, someone who walks but who may have a type of disability, such as a learning disability, that nobody can see-- and getting their experiences from that. That's just kind of an awareness raising and a consciousness raising tool.

Another way to create awareness is to actually have the people participate in a simulation. The thing with that is that it is very important to ensure that before they undertake any kind of simulation that they problem solve in their environment…because the thing is someone who has a disability has already problem-solved in --their environment. For me I know exactly how wide the door needs to be and exactly how much space I need under my desk. There are a lot of things that I already know that someone who gets thrown into a chair isn't gonna be able to know ahead of time on his own and if you just throw someone in a chair and then he has to got out in the environment he'll be completely unprepared and won't get a very realistic picture because he’ll say "well this is really hard!" Well the important thing then is to do the...pre-work so that the people understand that with a little bit of thinking about it, you can overcome those quote unquote barriers and so when you actually take on your disability its not ---its more realistic with someone who lives with it. That was the biggest thing I found the first time we did a simulation is that we just threw people in a chair or we gave them this visual impairment and they had no idea what to do they had no idea. It was afterwards we thought, it would have been really helpful if we had talked about this. So it’s really important just to do the problem solving beforehand.

EMILY MILLER: That's really interesting, you just explained something to me that I've been wondering about with the simulation because I've read some critiques of it and you just kind of explained where it could go because it seems that the intention is to have people understand the challenges but also to appreciate also the abilities and knowledge of people with disabilities in negotiating [societal barriers that exist] I guess that what I'm saying is that I've read things where people are saying "I feel so sorry for someone who has this experience cause its really impossible and you can't do anything.

MARGARET STRAN: Right. And that's definitely what you do not want to happen because then they get this horribly skewed thing. And its like "Oh your life is so horrible. I feel so sorry for you! and that is not what you want to happen. That's why that education ahead of time is so important.

4. REASONABLE ACCOMMODATIONS:              real audio clip icon

MARGARET STRAN: For me personally, I would define reasonable accommodation as something that ensures that the person with the disability is able to perform his or her job duties comfortably, without stress or anxiety or a lot of undue hardship. And at the same time, that those accommodations do not unreasonably put financial hardship on the corporation, the company, the individual, whomever it may be who has to provide those accommodations.

For the project in Washington DC the reasonable accommodation that I felt was necessary was making my living accommodations completely accessible and in that matter, it was very well done. The ramps were put up; the bathrooms had that little chair lift I was talking about; the closet bar was lowered; there was a long length mirror so I could see in the mirror. All the accommodations that I needed in my living quarters to ensure that I could do every thing that I needed to do without ever thinking about it were done. On the other hand, I didn’t feel like it was reasonable of me to ask that everything at my work site was accessible. Especially [because] as a service project… these people need help and they don’t have the financial resources in general to do it on their own which is why they bring us in. To ask that a work site had to be completely accessible to me was not a reasonable thing. Fortunately, at my work site it worked out that where we had our lunch and sort of our home base was accessible, but actually going over the work site there were a number of stairs, the renovations that we were doing all had stairs. But actually, that to me was fine.

EMILY MILLER: So you were able to participate in fixing up these buildings with out the Corporation for National Service or the site getting involved in adding ramps or anything?


5. ADVICE TO PROGRAMS:             real audio clip icon

EMILY MILLER: So the scenario is a program coordinator and maybe they are meeting someone at an interview or... for the first time and they see that [that person] is a wheelchair user and they have fears or assumptions. They are feeling this concern about whether or not they can do [the service] whether or not they'd be safe doing the kinds of activities [required] in the program.

What would you say to them about how they should deal with those questions and those fears that they have?

MARGARET STRAN: Well, If they have fears and questions about safety and accessibility for someone who is using a wheelchair, the most important thing is to talk to that person and to get a feeling for that person's ability, the persons desire, and what that person wants to do. Because it's not fair to assume or to limit that person and say, "Oh you can't do this or you can't go there” simply because their {the program Coordinator's} experience hasn't introduced them to people who are willing and able to do more than a typical stereotype. For me that was the big problem: these people were setting limits on my abilities based on what they thought I could or couldn't do. So I would really encourage someone to talk to the person and find out not only what that person wants to do but what that person can do safely and what kind of formula can be worked out for reaching a happy medium.

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©The National Service Inclusion Project (NSIP) is a training and technical assistance provider on disability inclusion. NSIP partners with the Association on University Centers on Disability, National Council on Independent Living, Association on Higher Education and Disability and National Down Syndrome Congress to build connections between disability organizations and all CNCS grantees, including national directs, to increase the participation of people with disabilities in national service.